Today, we celebrate 231 years of American independence - or, rather, declared independence.
Anyone who has read David McCullough's compelling account, in 1776, of Gen. George Washington's troubles in Boston and New York that fateful year knows the July 4 signing was a high point during a period that brought its share of defeats for the revolutionaries and reformers.
Last week, I was in Katmandu to give a series of lectures to Nepal's civic, military and major-party leaders about that country's attempt to form a constitutional government. The experience caused me to reflect on just how foresighted our founders were - and also how fortunate.
Nepalis are trying to devolve their centralized state, one bolstered for decades by a constitutional monarchy, with a federal structure that replaces bloodlines with intergovernmental lines of organization and autonomy. For many Nepalis, this task is tough to envision, much less to achieve.
Though they have the benefit of models provided by ours and other federal, constitutional democracies around the globe, Nepalis begin with few of the advantages our founders enjoyed two centuries ago. They are trying to decentralize and democratize a small, multiethnic, elite-run country that is not only among the world's poorest but also is wedged uncomfortably along the eye-popping Himalayan range between two Asian powers, China and India. In real and metaphorical terms, Nepal has little elbow room.
By comparison, our founders had ample physical and philosophical space within which to maneuver.
Our elite, white, male revolutionaries were charged with building a new nation, mostly for themselves, from a loose confederation of former colonies blessed with a wealth of natural resources, an unexplored frontier to the west, and a vast ocean separating them from their former colonizers to the east. There were no feudal or tribal traditions to shake; nor, once the Brits were shown to the nearest port for embarking, were there czars, kaisers, sheiks, princes or other divine-righters to overthrow.
If one all too conveniently ignores the matter of those pesky natives already living in the inaptly named "New World," the American patriots had what few constitution-writers have enjoyed since: a clean slate on which to write a key chapter in democracy's ongoing story.
Which is not to say the patriots' path was without its share of perils. When I teach my students about the American Revolution and the constitution-making that followed, I remind them of what Washington and his cohorts put at risk. Forget that the eventual first president was a wealthy landowner: The fate of his head would have been destined for something much different from its location today on the American dollar bill.
Of course, the Brits - today our closest allies - did not slink quietly away after Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence 231 years ago, or even after the James Madison-inspired charter the Philadelphia drafters worked up 11 years later. (Madison and his wife, Dolley, learned that lesson the hard way in 1814, when the Tories so thoroughly torched the White House that the smoke was reportedly visible from Baltimore.)
And let us not forget that the Founders bungled their first attempt at self-governance, drafting an Articles of Confederation insufficient to form a workable centralized government from the former colonies. The Nepalis I met, many of whom remain understandably worried about their constitutional future, took a small measure of comfort in the fact that the world's oldest constitutional federation needed an early do-over.
I'm guilty most years of not pausing long enough on this day to reflect upon what our revolution means - to ourselves, to our allies, to those who wish us ill and to others around the globe. Like many Americans, I can become quickly preoccupied with the beaches, ballgames and barbecues that hallmark the holiday. The trip to Nepal provided a useful reminder of what American democracy means. It means "all men created equal," even if we are still tinkering two centuries later with the meaning of that loaded phrase. It means the pursuit of happiness - and when you stop to consider how revolutionary an idea that is, you ought to lose your breath.
Though such notions surely warrant some celebratory fireworks - from Katmandu to Kansas, and from Timbuktu to Toledo - they mean so much more than that.
Thomas F. Schaller's column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.